Atrios asked the question in response to Lenore Skenazy’s post on FreeRangeKids about a mother who was reported to CPS for allowing her 10 year old to ride the public bus to school by herself. Here’s my take on it.
My kid spent the summer in Nuremberg, Germany as an summer study award recipient from the German government (Long story. She earned it). She was paired with a girl who was a couple of years younger than Brooke. We’ll call her C. C is 14 and attends the equivalent of eighth grade. Germans go to school well into July so Brooke went to school with C and spent time in the high school level gymnasium as well. Additionally, in Germany, it seems like the school isn’t necessarily in the immediate neighborhood. The gymnasium Brooke and C attended was in the middle of Nuremberg but C lived about about 8-10 miles away.
To get to school every morning, Brooke and C would get on the city bus, just like all the other students in Nuremberg. They took the bus to the train station and then took the train into town. Then they walked. Brooke didn’t say how young the youngest students were that took the bus and train but you can expect that from about the 6th grade on, the public transit system was the transportation that the students were expected to use. She was given an unlimited transit pass for the month that she was there but that was part of her award. C and her family used a more limited pass with a certain number of rides and they needed to buy new ones periodically, sort of like a metro card.
But wait! There’s more.
Brooke says that a typical gymnasium day is broken into two parts. The compulsory parts of the curriculum are in the morning. The electives are in the afternoon and afternoon scheduling varies depending on what you’re taking. It’s difficult to describe but it sounds like more of a college schedule in the afternoon because the elective classes don’t meet every day of the week or meet hours apart, that kind of thing. So, after your morning classes, you’re pretty much free to do what you want until your afternoon electives begin. And she didn’t have lunch at school. You’re on your own after your morning classes are finished and that means you can leave the school if you want. Students either go home or they roam the city foraging for food, usually at McDonalds. Brooke said she ate more lunches at Mickey D’s in Nuremberg than she ever has in the US.
That kind of behavior is unheard of here in the states and yet it seems to work just fine in Nuremberg. There aren’t gangs of kids getting into trouble during the middle of the day or getting kidnapped at the bus stops. You can imagine what it was like when she started school this fall back in her old high school. Suddenly, she was treated like a feeble minded toddler again after a summer of expectations of mature and responsible behavior. There is no public transportation in this town and no way for her to go and explore the city or walk around. There really aren’t that many destinations here anyway. It’s a suburb and all the businesses are on a busy main drag without many sidewalks. It’s strictly SUVLand. There aren’t any cathedrals or museums or gathering places nearby. No place where a bunch of teenagers with time to kill before their classes can hang out without suspicions of wrongdoing. Not only that but leaving the campus during the middle of the day is strictly forbidden. You can’t just go off to a local coffee shop or a cafe order a sausage and a beer, which you can drink at 16. Nooooo. Your movements are strictly controlled. Can you imagine that?? Nuremberg lets a whole junior year’s worth of students loose in a city where it’s legal to drink beer at 16 and no one bats an eye. Here in NJ, a 16 year old can’t go anywhere without a strict chain of custody.
And the weird thing is that the whole time she was in Germany riding the buses and trains from town to town with her friends, and many times without the chaperone, I never worried about her. During her time in Berlin, her group had several opportunities to explore the city on their own without the chaperone. And they did. For a bunch of American kids to go to a city in a different country and not have to be tied to a chaperone who practically has to be in the bathroom with them to wipe their asses just doesn’t happen here. It must have been very liberating. And they all made it back to the hotel in one piece. Fancy that. Will wonders never cease.
Why the people of central New Jersey think it is good or healthy to regulate their kids’ every move is beyond me. Brooke really resents being curtailed. She can’t go anywhere without a car, which is too expensive for her to learn to drive in our present domestic circumstances, and the system acts like it can’t trust her or her classmates to keep their commitments. They’re assumed to be up to no good before they’ve even done anything. Around here, little groups of teenagers can’t walk through the neighborhoods talking and laughing without some irate citizen calling the police on them for making noise.
But the more I see it, the more I am convinced that it’s not really a safety issue. It’s a control issue. There are many things we can’t control anymore. Our jobs and retirements seem very uncontrollable. We can’t control the wars our elected officials got us into. We can’t control gas prices or food prices or global warming. But we can control our kids. It seems like some people are hanging onto that power way past the point where it serves any useful purpose. You have to let your kids grow up sometime.
As for Brooke, the summer in Germany matured her quite a bit. A couple of weeks ago, I drove her to Philadelphia Airport to catch a flight to visit her grandparents in Houston. I left her off at the curb in front of the terminal, got her bags out of the car, and told her to wait inside for me while I parked the car. Before I had even found a spot, she buzzed me on the phone. She had checked in, gotten her boarding pass, checked her baggage and was going through security. I could leave because there was nothing left for me to do or hover over or fret about. She jumped on the plane without any help at all. Thank you, Nuremberg.
So, the answer to the question about how old should a student be in order to take public transportation to school is: find out what the best practices are in the rest of the world and use that as a guideline. If it’s ok for a 10 year old in Nuremberg to take the public bus to school, it’s probably ok for an American kid to do it. It would be nice if the kid had other friends doing it too. There’s comfort in numbers. But as long as the kid can navigate the bus route and use the token/card system by themselves after practice with a parent, why not? Give the kid a cell phone and tell him/her to call if they get stuck.
They’ll probably do fine.
And here’s how they get to school in the Netherlands. Now THIS is what I’d love to see in more places in the US: